I'm no stranger to space opera, so when I heard that Legend of the Galactic Heroes featured an epic war between a 'Galactic Empire' and a 'Free Planets Alliance', I went in expecting the kind of moral dualism found in Star Wars and Star Trek. Sure, the Alliance is revealed to be corrupt and the Empire is undergoing reforms, but even then I'd assumed it wouldn't go any farther than Babylon 5 - which attacked corrupt democracy by way of glorifying benevolent military dictatorship - or the smug condescension of Firefly.
Yet further Galactic Heroes went. Every other time I was about to make a sly remark about the moral hypocrisy of one position or the ramifications of another, it was done for me - often through the omnipresent narrator. Think that the gallant politeness of enemy commanders is nothing more than the complicity of mass murderers? It's an idea mentioned in passing. If the war is usually depicted simply as spaceships exploding to a classical soundtrack, the horrors are also shown: once, a soldier holds his intestines as his ship burns.
The respective benefits and problems of a corrupt democracy or a benevolent dictatorship are treated in a surprisingly even handed manner - to the extent undue bias exists, it is with people rather than politics.
In terms of scope the narrative is breathtaking as it takes the fate of these two nation states right through their struggle to the finish. This development is never fast paced but I can't recall a single filler episode - it feels like the inexorable march of historical events, or, as the narrator frequently intones, ‘another page of galactic history is turned'.
Pains are taken to flesh out this universe. Whole episodes are devoted to history lessons, which are more entertaining than that might sound. Admittedly this is not a realistic universe even by the generous standards of space opera - letters are still hand-written, everything about the Empire whiffs of nineteenth century anachronism, even the Alliance can seem old-fashioned. Though not plausible, this is certainly a fascinating world to get lost in.
Space battles are frequent, tending to fall into the common space opera tropes of ignoring three dimensions (unless they feel like it) and being treated as a naval engagements, though within those conventions I found them to be pretty interesting viewing.
There are numerous action scenes involving men wielding axes (explained away as long-range weapons don't work for technobabble reasons), which can be enjoyable for character interactions - especially Walter von Schenkopp being a badass - but can also be undermined by the very studied, theatrical manner of the writing. These engagements could also be seen as somewhat silly. Furthermore the use of German will leave something to be desired for anyone familiar with the language.
All that considered, the high rating reflects my feeling that the strengths of the plot - which feels like an epic novel in the vein of Romance of the Three Kingdoms - surpasses its own weaknesses to become something superlatively memorable.
The animation is pretty weak - in space battles there can be a dependence on stock footage, movements of characters are invariably stiff, and the action sequences - such as they are - are never special.
However, visual presentation and designs are consistently good, with a surprising number of the huge cast of characters being identifiable at a glance. The quasi-period setting and costumes of the Empire are well realised, as are the more contemporary looking apparel of the Alliance. So too are the spaceships inside and out, especially the Brünhild. There's an overall elegance to this aspect of production that is admirably suited to Galactic Heroes.
Most of the music is European classical, but a good ear is shown in applying given pieces. The songs for the openings and endings mostly fit this theme - the opening is invariably a classical piece sung by a woman (or women) in English, while the ending - which uses a male singer - is mostly classical but occasionally veers into light pop, always in Japanese. The English is very good for all but the last of the openings. With that opening excluded, these songs are quite listenable - even if their similarity may make them blur together.
The voice cast is notably sizeable, many of whom would later go on to fame in other anime series - and there are certainly several excellent performances here. If I were to single one out I'd choose Kei Tomiyama, whose rueful Yang Wenli is sympathetic and approachable. When the role was recast for Golden Wings, it just wasn't Yang to me anymore.
Since a consistently positive review is boring to read, allow me to begin with the negative: Several characters are two-dimensional. There are more than a few pigheadedly stubborn generals on both sides, and the members of the Terraist cult are your stock manipulative shady religious order. Again, though the political systems are handled in shades of grey, a black and white contrast is sometimes used between individuals.
For every handful of simply drawn figures, however, there are a plethora of excellent ones, and it is the characters along with the plot that form this anime's greatest strengths.
Most notable are the two rivals Yang Wenli and Reinhard von Lohengramm, whose struggle is a driving force throughout. Both are sympathetic yet neither escape criticism - Reinhard for his dictatorial aims, Yang for depending so strongly on such a thoroughly untrustworthy government. To an extent they're guilty of the common anime flaw of informed genius - we're told rather than really convinced that they are exceptional commanders. Nonetheless, the strategies are sufficiently competent - and the characters so well written as people - that I didn't really mind.
Yang offers much of the most potent commentary about war and politics, often in a wryly humorous and self-deprecating manner. Though one may criticise his strategies, Yang's personality and conversational range feels more authentically like a genius tactician than similar characters in anime.
If Reinhard is less interesting, it's only because Yang shines so brightly. Still, it's easy to sympathise with his hatred of the aristocracy for making his sister the Emperor's sexual plaything. His dependence on his best friend and constant shadow, the ever moral Siegfried Kircheis, is nicely contrasted with the necessity of his Machiavellian ally Paul von Oberstein. Ultimately his character arc is arguably the most compelling.
Aside from those two there are many, many other interesting and well handled characters, far too many to go into any sort of depth here. Of these several posess expertly handled character arcs. Even a minor character may be given extra facets - Heydrich Lang might be despicable politically, but he privately donates to charities and he's a good father and husband. Or, to return to the Terraist cult once more, we do see a kindly old woman undertaking a pilgrimage to Earth.
If I had to imagine what the ideal anime for me would be, it'd probably be something just like this - an epic, literary space opera steeped in early modern European culture with a heavy dependence on classical music. If that very idea doesn't make your heart skip a beat, feel free to deduct a point or two from the score. Regardless I found Galactic Heroes a refreshingly intelligent, engaging series that should not just be considered a classic of anime, but of the space opera genre.
The war between the monarchical Galactic Empire and the democratic Free Planets Alliance has raged ceaselessly across the galaxy for over a century, with the fleets of both powers having fought countless battles. Currently the conflict revolves around the strategic Iserlohn Corridor, one of only two passages of space through which the two forces can access each other. Here the Empire has built the nigh-impregnable Iserlohn Fortress, whose deadly weaponry has thwarted repeated efforts by the Alliance to capture her. Phezzan, a neutral mercantile state, controls the other corridor. The long war has resulted in an indecisive stalemate, but there are two men from the two worlds who will change everything: Wen-Li Yang, a gifted strategist from the Alliance who wants nothing more than to retire and be a historian; and Reinhard von Lohengramm, a man from the Empire whose ambition knows no bounds. Their loves, struggles, triumphs and failures play across an interstellar stage of intrigue, war and death.